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Rethinking war, history, and anime with Ho Tzu Nyen’s Language

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I first encountered Ho Tzu Nyen as part of my research for my Master’s dissertation, which delved into how contemporary artists engage with history and archival materials. Instead of visiting museums and galleries to learn more about his works, I pored over my laptop screen, spending hours online riveted by Ho’s Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia.

Exploring what it means to be or unite a region, the online work captured my interest and irrevocably changed the way I see the world — my relationship with Singapore, my home country, and how I perceive the multi-faceted region of Southeast Asia.

So, imagine my excitement when I saw that Ho had a work called Language as part of National Gallery Singapore’s Light to Night programme Visions, which coincided with Singapore Art Week 2022. Language took the form of an Augmented Reality (AR) work that could only be accessed by using an app made by AR company Acute Art. I found this curious, considering that the medium brings to mind memories of Pokémon Go. 

Following the work’s run, I spoke to Ho about Language, the complicated histories it grapples with, how it fits into his larger practice, and what working with AR means to him. Read on to find out more. 

Your AR artwork Language was on show as part of Light to Night at National Gallery Singapore earlier this year. It aimed to break down public history and examined texts that offered Japanese perspectives towards war. Can you tell us more about the piece?

Language comes out of another project I worked on in 2021 called Voice of Void. It was a project I produced together with Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media (YCAM) in Japan, which focuses on technology and new media. This was an investigation into the Kyoto School and took the form of a virtual reality project.

The larger historical context for Language would be the Kyoto School, a network of Japanese scholars, primarily philosophers. The key figure in this network was Kitaro Nishida, who was regarded as the most important modern Japanese philosopher of the 20th Century. Or, at least, he was viewed this way before World War Two. He taught at Kyoto University and ran its philosophy department, so the Kyoto School grew around that.

Language makes use of three philosophical texts by three scholars. Firstly, there’s Kitaro Nishida’s text, which deals with his concept of ‘absolute nothingness.’ He strove to create a dialogue between Asian and Western philosophy.

The second text I drew on was one by Hajime Tanabe. Many viewed him as the second-most important Kyoto School philosopher and Nishida’s eventual successor. For Language, I drew on a key lecture called Death-Life, which he gave in the lead-up to the war. It essentially convinced students that dying for the Japanese state would allow them to reach absolution — which is a scary thought.

The third text I looked at was by Miki Kiyoshi, who was also thought to be Nishida’s favourite disciple. He died in 1945 in prison for harbouring a communist.

In Language, we’ll hear Tanabe’s text when we point our phone cameras to the sky. At the same time, you’ll see ‘mecha’ robots, which are featured frequently in Japanese anime. When you point the camera to the ground, you’ll see a disintegrating scholar and hear an audio track reciting Kiyoshi’s texts.

However, you won’t see anything when you point the camera to the horizon. You’ll instead hear Nishida’s texts, which deal with concepts of absolute nothingness.

Many artists and writers in Singapore and across Southeast Asia refer to World War Two (WW2) as a crucial turning point in history in their works. In this light, why did you choose the 1930s and 1940s — an era of rising (rather than the pinnacle of) Japanese aggression — for the focus of this piece?

You’re right to think this; I’d say that WW2 was a historical event that synchronised countries in time and connected Southeast Asia to wider Asia. 

Many Southeast Asian accounts of history also treat the Japanese occupation as an important event that led to nationalism. The typical cliché seems to be that even though the Japanese committed many atrocities, they also showed that an Asian power could go toe-to-toe with Western colonial powers. This creates a strange dialectic because the Japanese occupation was very harsh but sometimes it’s seen as sowing the seeds for eventual liberation.

This dialectic isn’t only shared by Southeast Asian politicians but it’s also inherent in the Japanese discourse of the time. Japanese history coming out of Japan did seem to mask its aggression as an attempt to liberate Southeast Asia from colonialism.

As for why I chose to focus on the 1930s, it’s because WW2 isn’t the preferred term the Japanese historians use to refer to the period of 1942 – 1945. They, for example, prefer the term ‘Greater East Asia War.’

What I find interesting is how the naming of an event reveals the assumptions we have about it. Using the term WW2 means that Japan has synced up with the rest of the world, primarily Europe. This term removes a long period of Japanese history and instead frames Japan within a larger global war. 

But we have to consider that Japan had already invaded China in the 1930s and that the Japanese colonisation of Korea went back even further. It’s also telling that Japanese historians’ preference for saying the ‘Greater East Asia War’ reflects its history with Asia, rather than being part of a war defined mainly by Europe. In this light, I find naming wars and events a highly ideological act. 

Choosing to use Japanese texts from the 1930s and early 1940s allows me to engage with this entire period and shift away from the Anglo-American framing of WW2.

It’s interesting to think about the Singaporean construction of history. Most of us say WW2 and that’s based on the Allied construction of events. I think it’s important to widen our perspective of shared events and what they might have meant to the different actors.

Can you tell us about how you first learnt about the Kyoto School?

I first found out about the Kyoto School through another artist and friend whom I admire very much, Park Chan-Kyong. He’s a South Korean artist and we were in the same exhibition in Berlin back in 2017. He made a work about the Kyoto School and that was my first exposure to it.

Following that, I channelled this interest into The Kyoto School, which was part of the 2018 Gwangju Biennale and Hotel Aporia for the 2019 Aichi Triennale.

There’s a moment in Language where a philosopher falls to the ground. This, in a way, seems symbolic of how certain pacifist, anti-war sentiments were completely overshadowed by militarism in the 30s and 40s. Could you talk more about that?

In some sense, we can say these critiques of war were placed on the floor and rendered horizontal. In Language, the philosopher is always low to the ground. He gradually disintegrates as he’s based on Kiyoshi, who died in prison.

The mecha, which accompanies Hajime’s troubling Imperialist texts, is a militarised vertical body. However, it also gradually disintegrates — referring to the fates of many students who sat on Hajime’s Death-Life lecture in 1943. Shortly after he delivered this lecture, Japanese conscription of students intensified. 

Some of them went on to become kamikaze pilots and their diaries refer to Hajime’s lecture, so there’s a strong relationship between Kyoto University (or Kyoto Imperial University as it was formerly known) and those who fought in the war.

I considered the contrast between the horizontal and the vertical as basic structures of Language. However, towards the end of the work, you’ll see that both aspects eventually disintegrate and become nothing.

Loyalty to one’s state is something that comes up quite intensely in Language. Is this an idea you took note of while creating other works like The Nameless and The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia?

This is a tough one! (laughs)

For me, the nation-state is a historical problem. It has inserted itself into our versions of history and affects how we understand history. Nationalism transforms our entire past into a straight line that leads to itself — as if all history has occurred to lead to the formation of the nation-state. It also colonises the future, as we can only understand our future through nationalism. 

The Nameless is about about a character named Lai Teck, though this is only one of 50 known aliases. Today, we still aren’t sure what his real name was, though we know that he was the Secretary-General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) between 1939 and 1947.

He was originally Vietnamese and acted as a triple agent for the French, British, and Japanese secret police. For me, someone like Lai Teck is a Southeast Asian transnational figure, a regionalist — though most people might view this negatively since he was a traitor. I view his biography as a history of Southeast Asia. The masters he served were the colonisers who fought over the region.

The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia thinks about Southeast Asia as a region. But a great contradiction is that the idea of a region weakens the national authority. Historically, regionalism didn’t work for us because while Japan promoted Pan-Asianism (the idea that Asia should unite to resist European imperialism) in its period of rising nationalism, it also aggressively invaded Asia during the war. 

So this whole period is convoluted and contradictory. The simultaneous existence of opposite, extreme perspectives — like how the almost-utopian idea of liberating Asia from colonisation simultaneously existed alongside Japanese imperialist sentiments of dominating Asia — is the root of my curiosity. 

The actual AR (Augmented Reality) work, which was produced together with Acute Art, depicts a machine that looks like a fighting robot — or mecha from the Gundam anime series. Can you tell us more about how you decided on this imagery?

Thanks for spotting the Gundam reference! Why a mecha? You can think about it as a fusion of metal, steel, and machinery with the organic. 

For Language, I referenced the Zaku models from the Gundam series. The Zaku models aren’t actually the good guys — they’re like Stormtroopers from Star Wars. Gundam’s good guys frequently destroy the Zaku, so I chose them for their anti-heroic stance.

With their heads recalling samurai headpieces, Gundam’s heroes typically are portrayed as physically upright and righteous. This contrasts with the neckless Zaku models, whose heads sink into the shoulders. 

For me, the Zaku grows out of the Japanese memories of WW2. The Zaku’s shade of green has a military connotation to me as it recalls the one chosen for Japanese planes in WW2. With one red circle for an eye, the Zaku models also remind me of the Japanese Zero Fighter planes, which were used throughout WW2. 

It’s interesting for me to make this connection through anime because anime is highly ideological! It shows how national ideology can seep into media one way or the other. 

Since you read a lot about Japanese history and consume Japanese media, I was wondering if you watch a lot of anime? Does this in any way relate to your practice?

I was interested in anime growing up. For a few years, I looked into anime quite seriously and two things intrigued me. Firstly, there was the continued return of Japanese ideological questions from WW2 in different forms and fantasies.

Another thing that interested me was the technical aspects of what it means to make 2D anime, compared to the dominant notion of 3D animation (like Pixar). When you’re making 3D animation, you create an object that exists in virtual space and you can easily show the space around it.

2D animation differs because you have to draw new frames to show different angles. I’m also interested in how anime can create new, unusual effects by moving between foregrounds and backgrounds.

You mentioned in this interview that using contemporary technology like Augmented Reality (AR) to discuss history is something that interests you. In this light, what was working with AR like and how has working with it enriched your practice? 

There’s the reflexive temptation to use technology to deal with contemporary problems so using new techniques to think about older, unresolved questions interests me. Re-introducing the historical into technology offers us a possibility to rethink these problems from new perspectives and consider the possibilities that such technology offers.

Language was the first time I used AR. I’d say that the immediate impression that AR gives you is that it’s similar to a gimmick — seeing something virtual on your phone when it isn’t there in person seems like a trick. AR generally connotes a lightweight nature due to this. So it’s interesting to make this reversal by discussing some of history’s heaviest topics, like war.

With AR, what is most important for me is the simultaneous existence of things that exist and don’t exist at the same time. This creates something like a montage in reality, especially as we seek to understand today’s reality alongside perceived notions of history. 

I understand that it differs across each work and media, but what is your overall process in creating works? Since your practice seems very interconnected, where does your research start and end with each work?

Well, my research starts when a certain idea possesses me. I usually begin my day with reading — it’s the only way I can have a good day. My research usually starts when something catches hold of me. It’s part of my personality where I will go quite far to understand anything that interests me — usually with the illusion that I’ll exhaust everything related to the topic. Although this has never happened!

That’s usually how a project begins, out of curiosity. It ends when I run out of time or money to transform the curiosity into an artwork, so it never truly ends.

What projects do you have lined up? Are there any other points in Singapore or regional history that you’d like to explore? 

My main interest was in Japan for the past three years. Before that, it was Southeast Asia as I worked on Critical Dictionary. It’s been a very intensive past few years and I’d like to take a break from looking into Japan.

My next work will come back to Singapore, which I haven’t engaged with for some time. It will be about the history of water engineering and how it transformed from the colonial period to early independence and the current period. I’ll also look at water circulation and how it links to the Singaporean psyche.

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Learn more about Ho Tzu Nyen here

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